Breaking Bad, Season 5, Episode 1: “Live Free or Die”
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Michael Slovis
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on AMC
And so the end begins. The most acclaimed drama around kicks off its last, bipartite season with…a scene in a Denny’s. More specifically, a flashforward, one which sees our esteemed antihero Walter White “celebrating” his 52nd birthday seemingly on the run. As he once again has a clandestine meeting with Jim Beaver’s sombre arms dealer, we get a glimpse of Walt at his most coolly methodical, as well as being very possibly, finally, near the end of his rope; what on Earth, after all, might he be needing that behemoth of an automatic weapon for?
That cold open is also a bit of a misdirect, at least as far as “Live Free Or Die” goes. If you’ll recall, Season 4 opened with the super-tense “Box Cutter,” which featured Gus Fring doing what must be the longest executioner’s march in televisual history. By comparison, “Live Free Or Die” actually hearkens back to the show’s first two seasons, in that it’s oriented around high-concept problem-solving; the principal difference being that showrunner Vince Gilligan now has a much surer hand with the show’s sense of grim, dry humor. It’s more of a swift epilogue to last season’s events, as opposed to “Box Cutter”‘s brutal statement of intent. (Actually, with its shots of men high-fiving in a desolate junkyard over a successful large-scale experiment, the episode also resembled a particularly crooked installment of MythBusters.)
Much of “Live Free Or Die” hinges on a plot/character contrivance that’s a little on the rich side. Upon realizing that he must find a way to dispose of Gus’s video evidence of his and Jesse’s doings, the duo speed off to find Mike, who is understandably less than pleased to see them. From here, we’re meant to belive that Mike, consummate pro that he is, would resist dropping them right then and there in order to save his own neck. Sure, he’d have to skip town, but if anyone can escape police scrutiny, surely Mike can? Furthermore, he grudgingly goes along with Jesse and Walt’s fairly insane plot to destroy a roomful of police evidence with a giant magnet. With the evidence destroyed, what stops him from severing his ties? The only satisfactory explanation is his affection for Jesse, but that doesn’t adequately explain why he doesn’t end the plague of Heisenberg himself.
Those misgivings aside, “Live Free or Die” is still replete with strong character work and, of course, top-notch performances. Anna Gunn, forever the thorn in many viewers’ proverbial sides, is of particular note here. While it’s unlikely that anyone was all that excited about the return of poor, poor Ted Beneke, Gunn’s tender-then-ice-cold line readings during her hospital visit are a thing of beauty. She may spend much of the episode terrified of her own husband (and rightfully so), but Skyler is still revealing her dark depths. On the other hand, Bob Odenkirk’s Saul finds himself as a relative upstanding citizen this week, which he can’t very often say. (He even brings up “ethics” unironically!) Watching him evolve from the savvy master of backroom skullduggery to a man who’s very simply in over his head has been a treat.
And then there’s the small matter of Walt. Having “won,” he finds himself emboldened in ways perhaps he never even thought possible. Yet the Walt we see in the cold open seems less invincible, perhaps even slightly shaken. He’s picked up a new identity; did he hook up with Saul’s “disappearer” from many episodes back, or did he muddle his own way through that process? What’s become of his family? And, once again, who’s the intended target who’ll be facing that big old gun? (It’s not really a “self-defense” sort of weapon, is it?) As per usual, the speculation is a major engine for enjoyment here. Despite the premiere’s wobbly bits, there’s every reason to believe that the wait between these next seven episodes and next summer’s final eight will be torture. So let’s enjoy the ride while we can.